Ulster County recently saw the completion of a “data mining” expedition into short-term rentals by a third party company hired last spring, and is currently sending out notices to all Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway and other such hosts reminding them about the county occupancy taxes they owe.
“We now have a detailed list and are starting to get in touch with those towns that have the most short term rentals, like Woodstock,” noted Deputy County Executive Ken Crannell.
He added that county Commissioner of Finance Burt Gulnick was “in the process” of getting occupancy tax letters out. Furthermore, Crannell noted that the county planning department was preparing to reach out to towns, starting with Woodstock, to provide assistance as they upgrade their zoning laws and prepare their planning boards for dealing with the effects of the short term rental explosion of recent years.
The new efforts were announced in March by county executive Michael Hein as a “Comprehensive Plan To Assist Local Municipalities, Ensure Public Safety And Promote A Level Playing Field With The Growing Short Term Vacation Rental Market.
In that March 19 press announcement, the County noted that “the plan is designed to improve equity and compliance with local health and safety guidelines as well as compliance with Ulster County’s Occupancy Tax, which is used exclusively to promote local tourism. Additionally, it is designed to enhance ‘fairness’ with traditional lodging businesses by standardizing requirements…The addition of short term rentals that primarily market through online hosting platforms creates a concern because not all lodging providers are compliant with local zoning, health and safety rules, as well as state and local tax requirements.”
The first step of Hein’s plan involved the hiring of a third-party company to come up with detailed lists of all short term rentals in the county, to be made available to individuals towns, villages and other municipalities.
That list is also being used by the county, via Gulnick’s finance department, to ensure that “anyone who regularly offers lodging on an overnight basis, including properties typically listed on Internet sites such as Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO, register with the Ulster County Department of Finance as well as remit a 2 percent occupancy tax.”
“Unfortunately, online service providers and hundreds of other vacation rental websites do not disclose the names of clients who are providing these short term rentals making it difficult for the County to ensure that providers are compliant with the existing Tax Law,” the original March press release went on. “Additionally, the Department of Finance will use this tool to help automate their administrative process and also provide an online portal for short term rental operators to easily register and ensure their compliance with the Tax Law.”
Rejecting voluntary agreements
In Spring, 2017, as other counties in the Hudson Valley and throughout the nation implemented voluntary occupancy tax agreements with Airbnb and some of the other large short term rental platforms, Ulster County officials fought over their own policies. County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach pushed for an agreement with Airbnb, at least, while County Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk countered that such a route did not properly take into account actual provisions of the county’s standing occupancy or “bed” tax.
“It’s all about making the playing field level,” Ronk said this week, noting that not all short term rentals would be paying taxes if left on a voluntary basis, as Airbnb had worked out with a number of other counties in the state. “I never supported that voluntary Airbnb platform.”
Once the county Finance Department gets its current paperwork and tax notices out to the county’s short term rental hosts, the county plan’s final step will be the development of a campaign to inform all short term rental hosts “with regard to various municipal health and safety rules and the steps that are needed to be in compliance with the Tax Law.” That effort will be accomplished in tandem with the Ulster County Lodging Coalition.
Woodstock’s efforts coordinated
with the county
On a more localized basis, Crannell said that the county has started working with Woodstock in the finalization of its own zoning ordinance updates to accommodate the short-term rental boom.
Woodstock councilman Richard Heppner, who has chaired a special committee on short term rentals for the town of Woodstock over the past year, said this week that the town recently sent its recommendations for zoning changes regarding the phenomenon are currently in the Woodstock planning board’s hands.
“We’re now waiting on them for their recommendations regarding language,” he said. “We’ll probably pick it up next week.”
The Planning Board discussed the town’s changes at its August 3 meeting.